COMMENTARY

Walnut Acres founder Paul Keene dies at age 94

By George DeVault
Posted May 12, 2005

The year was 1942. Tractors were about to outnumber horses on American farms. Chemical weed-killers and bug sprays were being promoted as the wave of the future. Organic farming and publishing pioneer J.I. Rodale was just kicking around the idea of starting a magazine for organic farmers. And wannabe organic farmers Paul and Betty Keene were farming and teaching for $5 a week, plus room and board, as they gained experience and searched for land to start their own farm.

“J.I. told me he was thinking about starting up a little magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening. He asked me if I wanted to become the assistant editor. I laughed and said, ‘No sir, I think I’d rather farm,'” Paul Keene recalled years later.

But that’s not all Paul did. With his wife, Betty, he founded Walnut Acres, the farm and direct-marketing company that first made natural foods available through the mail. Walnut Acres grew into a $10 million-a-year business. And the Keene family farm in Penns Creek, Pennsylvania, became a Mecca for the organic faithful from throughout the United States and many foreign countries. The Walnut Acres catalog, with a circulation of more than 40,000, was more popular than many magazines in its heyday.

Paul Keene passed away on April 23 of this year. He was 94, and is survived by a sister, three daughters, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, but his legacy lives on throughout his native Pennsylvania, the United States and the world.

In 1954, Paul helped found the Pennsylvania chapter of the Natural Foods Associates. He and Betty created the Walnut Acres Foundation in 1964, establishing an orphanage in southern India where they had been teachers in the 1930s. Paul helped found the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in 1993. With organic foods already solidly established as a multi-billion-a-year industry, the Organic Trade Association honored Paul with its Organic Leadership Award in 1998.

How It All Began

Paul earned a master’s in mathematics from Yale and went to India in 1938 to teach for two years. That’s where he was befriended by Mohandas K. Gandhi. He studied at Gandhi’s village training school and was inspired by the work of organic farming pioneer Sir Albert Howard and the Indian independence movement. Paul also fell in love with Enid Betty Morgan, a fellow teacher and the daughter of missionary parents.

He and Betty were married and returned to the United States in 1940, but not to teach. They wanted to farm!

“My work seemed somehow flat and empty. An unreality about it gnawed at my spirit. Had I become too separated from life at the roots?” Paul wrote years later. “Whenever I should have been working on a doctoral thesis, before my eyes swam visions of fertile fields and growing crops, of barns and animals and small, tender, living things. My heart belonged now, in a way both exciting and calming, to another world, at the doorway of which I stood awestruck.”

And so in 1946, the Keenes borrowed $5,000, bought 100 acres in central Pennsylvania and began farming “on a song and a prayer,” as The New Farm put it in an article in 1979.

“We moved there -- two children, two parents, Betty’s elderly missionary father, a team of horses, our dog Lassie, and an old car,” Paul wrote in his 1988 book Fear Not To Sow Because of the Birds. The book is a collection of the homey columns Paul wrote for the Walnut Acres catalog from 1949 through 1986. (The book’s title comes from an inscription Keene found on an old tombstone. He adopted it as the motto for Walnut Acres, saying that he always “tried to sow enough for birds and people, and then to move through our days trustingly.”)

“Never was a new-born babe more beautiful to a relieved mother than was Walnut Acres to us as we rattled proudly up the winding lane on that bright March moving day so long ago. Glory was everywhere. The tin roofs are rusted through in spots? Set buckets under the drips until we find time to patch the holes. The house and barn haven’t been painted for 20 years, the windows are falling out? Ah, but the wood is sound -- and just paste paper over the holes for now. The place has no plumbing, no bathroom, no telephone, no furnace -- we must heat with a wood-burning stove? That’s all right. Isn’t it great to pioneer? We must pay off the mortgage with that one team of horses, plus an old plow and an old harrow -- and live besides? Tut, tut -- we’ve lived on nothing before; we wouldn’t know how to live otherwise. Oh, the wonder of it all. We had a house and barn and outbuildings and a hundred acres. Did you hear? One hundred acres!”

The Keene’s first harvest from six old apple trees was maybe 15 bushels of fruit. Using a huge iron kettle over an open fire, they cooked the apples down to 100 quarts of apple butter. Selling for $1 a quart, the apple butter helped the young family survive its first winter at Walnut Acres. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Betty’s death in 1987, Paul’s own health began to decline. Other family members took over management of Walnut Acres, which was finally sold in 2000. Walnut Acres now exists only as a registered trademark of the Hain Celestial Group, Inc.

“A surprised observer, I have been swept along by life as in a miraculous stream,” Paul wrote in summing up his life. “I have found that answers do not come by concentrating on one’s own desires or fancied wants or needs. Somehow, by seeking out the larger framework, as Gandhi did, one rises here and there above the choking limits of self into a freer, fresher atmosphere, to where one simply sees farther, through an expanded, more beautiful landscape.”

Maybe that’s why Paul always sowed more than enough for the birds -- and for humanity. It’s a rich legacy that’s likely to continue yielding abundant harvests for generations to come, both through the many new farmers he inspired and the countless cooks and consumers he helped educate about the value of fresh, local and organic foods.

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